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The approaching offensive

ACROSS the world, spring is associated with rejuvenation and rebirth after a burdensome winter. Yet this logic skips Afghanistan. Here spring has been associated with death since 2003. One of the unintended consequences of the long military operation in Afghanistan has been its emulative nature; the adversary, in this instance the Taliban, has learnt the techniques normally used by states.

Its clearest proof was provided last year, when on April 22, the Taliban announced in a tone normally associated with government press releases that, “The Islamic Emirate is going to launch the spring operations under the inspirational name of ‘Azm’ [determination] at 5am on the 24th of April”. They added that the target of their operations would be the foreign occupiers and their Afghan supporters.

Such an announcement would have appeared farcical at best was it not for its deadly earnestness — on the said date, 108 deadly attacks were launched throughout Afghanistan, involving attacks on many provincial headquarters.

Unlike the past, when Nato and US forces bore the brunt of the spring offensive due to the large number of troops they had, attacks since 2015 have been more focused on the Afghan security forces and ordinary citizens.

While we tend to overlook pressing challenges in this region — witness the kid-glove treatment of Maulana Aziz of Lal Masjid in Islamabad — there is still time and opportunity to prepare and improvise a plan to devise a response to the threat of the coming spring offensive that the national unity government will face.

The lack of preparation to respond to the Taliban’s next spring offensive is surprising.

Although it is December, the Taliban are well positioned to wrest Helmand province from the Afghan government. Helmand is located in the south and has an area of approximately 58,000 square kilometres with a population of about one million. It constitutes the heartland of poppy growing in Afghanistan. Its fall would not only lead to the loss of a strategic province, it would also create a bridge with Balochistan linking the Taliban with supporters in that province — it will likely lead to further escalation of the conflict and increased acrimony between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is also surprising to note a lack of preparation to defend against the Taliban’s next spring offensive planned for April 2016. Some of the preparatory steps that could be taken are the following: 1) executing the many Nato/US promises of support in enhancing Afghan security, particularly the provision of aerial support and surveillance; 2) activation of regional intelligence-sharing and security cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan; 3) force deployment and contingency planning to deny acquisition of Afghan territory. A repeat of the Kunduz debacle would be disastrous and will sink the morale of the Afghan forces.

It is also time for the Afghans to rethink the official reconciliation strategy with the Taliban. The following factors are important to note: 1) the Taliban have splintered and Mullah Mansour may well be dead as a result of an episode of firing within Taliban ranks; 2) it may not be possible to have a united Taliban group participating; 3) the Afghan government would be best placed to negotiate with the Taliban directly instead of requesting assistance from Pakistan as its leverage with the Taliban has weakened after the challenge to Mullah Mansour’s leadership; 4) reconciliation will lead to the lowering of civilian causalities that will help strengthen the Afghan state.

As the war with the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is likely to be a generational affair, it will be wise for both states to clearly lay down their war objective. In an insurgency, the main goal of any state is to protect its population from terrorist attacks; there are no armies in the field to be defeated and both state and insurgent evolve their strategies as they go along.

Officially, the current Afghan elite indicate the non-negotiable aspect of their constitutional order designed under the Bonn Accord of 2000 and the arrangements connected with it. This could become a bone of contention in any future reconciliation with the Taliban. Perhaps, this is a short-sighted position as it is divorced from the anthropology of the Afghan state. As Tamim Ansary points out, “For most villagers the governor was a story, the king a rumour, some tough guy with a big army … [their] relevance to daily life near nil.”

There are thus two Afghanistans; a minority urban part composed of 10 to 15 large cities and the larger rural countryside composed of villages and hamlets where clans and tribes dwell and where the dynamics of powers are transacted on a daily basis. If the Afghan and Pakistani states are to obtain domination over the insurgents, then it is in such villages that they must prevail. It is best achieved by a decentralised and a locally based system of governance.

If that is the case, then though the Bonn dispensation may have shifted power to Afghan ethnic minorities, it is irrelevant to the lives of the majority of provinces where the insurgents prevail.

It will help the Afghan incumbent state to achieve more protection for its citizens (and thus victory), if it opted for empowerment at the village level and then negotiated with the Taliban insurgent leaders in such a decentralised approach. Such an approach has the following advantages: 1) to succeed at the village level, the Taliban will have to gain support of the villagers which will only be provided if their lives are made securer; 2) the Afghan government will become autonomous in achieving reconciliation without depending on Pakistan; 3) as the demand for peace gathers momentum at the village level, the insurgents will be hard pushed to deny it. All these factors go towards strengthening the incumbent Afghan state.

Philip Bobbitt in analysing the relationship between constitutional order and war correctly concludes that victory in insurgencies lies with the party that succeeds in saving lives and it is for the constitutional order to adjust. Now is the time for defining an Afghan-centric framework for peace to prevent the pain and sorrow connected with the upcoming spring offensive.

The writer is a former political agent and chief secretary, KP.

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2015

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